Education, Teachers, Uncategorized — April 27, 2017 at 10:22 pm

What you need to know about accountability, tests, and music


In the past couple of days I’ve seen a number of troubling statements about education and policy-related issues, like standardized testing, from a variety of political leaders. And I keep coming back to the same word to describe how I feel after reading their ideas about the state of public education.


One of these statements was from a hopeful for governor of our state, and although there were some encouraging bits about “supporting teachers” scattered throughout the piece, the overriding concerned seemed to be a focus on increased “accountability.”

In an era in which teachers are scrutinized, measured, prodded, and poked like pieces of meat, it is simply beyond comprehension that any reasonable person would suggest that what’s need to make things better is…wait for it…more “accountability.”

Even worse, this “accountability” is only ever available in one-size-fits-all standardized tests–tests that do not provide any sort of meaningful feedback to students so they can improve their learning, or to teachers so they can improve their teaching. Which know…kind of the whole point of evaluation. Instead, the tests are used to rank and sort schools so that some person in a state school reform office that has never taught can decide what schools to close–without ever setting foot in those schools, meeting the students, or observing the teachers.

While these tests are a colossal waste of time for the subjects they are allegedly designed to measure, such as math and reading, they are even more ridiculous in subjects like music, which is part of the 70% of academic disciplines that make up what’s known as “untested subjects”–and that form the majority of the school curriculum.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing I’ve read recently is this piece, “American teenagers remain behind on music and visual arts, study says.” The article describes the results of a nationally-administered music exam taken by nearly 9000 eighth-grade students last year, and the news is not good, according to Peggy Carr, Acting Commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics:

“When I saw the results, clearly there is room for improvement, because clearly there is a lot of content that students weren’t able to interact with correctly,” Carr told The Associated Press.

What caused Ms. Carr such alarm? Were the students uninterested in music? Were they unable to carry a tune, or keep a steady beat? Uh, not exactly…

When asked to listen to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” only about half of the students were able to identify that the opening solo is played on a clarinet. Students who scored 182 were able to label all the eight notes in C major, students who got 150 were able to label one note.

Let’s get something straight: These tests are a joke.

I’m a musician and a teacher. I’ve got several degrees in music and in education, and have been teaching music since 1980. I’ve dedicated my entire professional life to helping kids play, sing, and learn about music, and as a college teacher, I help my students become music teachers themselves. I’ve taught band, orchestra, choir, elementary music, instrument lessons, and music theory. I’ve also helped develop music tests in 3 different states, and have written scholarly articles on assessment for professional journals, so I understand evaluation, and have no problems with the idea of assessment in music…

…and I don’t care one bit if a kid doesn’t know that the clarinet plays the opening riff of Rhapsody in Blue–any music teacher can teach them that if it’s important for the kid to know. Same with recognizing the notes in a scale.

For a music test to have any relevance or meaning it needs to engage students in actively creating music.

In actively listening, not playing instrument detective.

In improvising an answer to a musical question. Not in spelling a scale.

I’m betting that those same kids who couldn’t recognize the clarinet in Gershwin know a whole lot of stuff about music that the test makers have no idea about:

  • like who influenced Kendrick Lamar;
  • how to construct a playlist;
  • how to make beats using a sampling program;
  • how to choose tunes that work together for a mash up, and a lot more.
  • But these things aren’t on the test, either because the folks that designed the test don’t know what music the kids like and enjoy, or aren’t familiar with music technology applications, or don’t hold the same musical values as the kids for whom they have created this test. Or perhaps they haven’t figured out how to force the beauty of a melodic line in a Bach chorale, or the genius of an Eric Clapton solo, into a multiple choice exam sheet that can be scored by a Scantron machine.

    More disappointing is the realization that even our supposed supporters don’t “get it” when it comes to the limitations of testing, and the real value of music and the arts to children’s learning. Consider this quote from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers:

    …visual arts help develop a child’s creative and critical thinking, and exposure to music can boost students’ graduation rates or academic results.

    No, Randi, just no.

    First, exposure to music does no one any good. What’s needed is active engagement and participation, not exposure. We are exposed to the flu. We create music.

    More to the point, the goal of learning music is not to boost graduation rates or increase test scores in math, science, and reading. Music teachers get their kids once a week in elementary school; let them just teach music–let’s not make them responsible for graduation rates and SAT scores. And enough with the college and career ready stuff, ok?

    So, who cares how the kids do on this test?

    Not the kids.

    Not their parents.

    And probably not their music teachers, either.

    Who does that leave?

    The test companies. And the policy makers who know so little about music that they think it can be tested like it was the flu.